Education and Democracy

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About a decade ago, I connected the dots between three seemingly disparate topics — innovation, education, and democracy.  I then began sharing with friends this growing concern.  If our schools don’t change – profoundly and urgently – there’s every possibility our democracy will collapse.  Back then, no one took me seriously.  Now, that fear doesn’t seem far-fetched.

Here’s how these dots are connected.  Innovation is racing ahead, completely reshaping the competencies adults need for career and citizenship.  Yet our education system remains stuck in time, preparing kids for a past that’s a distant speck in the rear-view mirror.  The skills required in school – memorizing content, replicating low-level procedures, and following instructions – are precisely what machine intelligence excels at.  The result? Millions are piling up on life’s sidelines, scrambling to make financial ends meet, and lacking basic citizenship skills.  This sets the stage for the unraveling of our civil society.

Over the past decade, I’ve done my best to call attention to this unfolding collision.  I’ve produced documentaries, written books and articles, convened community forums, and been on the road almost constantly.  During 2015-16, I traveled non-stop for the entire nine-month school year, going to all fifty states and convening a thousand meetings.  While the trip’s focus was school, I had the opportunity to view the dismal 2016 Presidential campaign from the vantage point of life across America.  I saw an America grappling with a crumbling infrastructure, boarded up storefronts, underfunded schools, and the unfulfilled promise of hope and change.

Following this immersive trip, I wrote the book What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America. As it profiles innovative educators across the country, it gets at education’s role — democracy’s foundation.  Its preface includes these telling words from Abraham Lincoln:   “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation is the philosophy of government in the next.”

Any democracy is fragile. Ours is in peril.  Not because of terrible trade deals, or desperate refugees seeking a better life here, or NFL players kneeling in peaceful protest. Civil society is fracturing because our education system no longer plays its historic role of leveling America’s playing field and preparing kids for their future.  Far too many adults lack the skills to plug into a growing but lopsided economy, and aren’t equipped to critically analyze their newsfeed’s information.  And our policies and budget priorities are falling far, far short of giving our citizenry the resources needed to move ahead in a very different world. As millions struggle, the stage is set for leaders who stoke fears and offer false promises.

We are seeing hopeful signs of a democracy that can still represent us. This year, the courageous Parkland kids inspired millions to fight for sensible gun laws.  In six states (Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia), teachers galvanized their communities to advocate for adequate funding for public education.  These grassroots movements awaken us to the need to invest in and safeguard the futures of our children, and show us the power of collective action.

But we’re seeing many signs of a democracy teetering on the edge, undermining our children’s futures. Elected representatives provided a $1.5 trillion tax cut for our most affluent, while taking dead aim on programs providing nutrition, healthcare, and education for kids. The U.S. Department of Education chose to side with education predators, making life easier for-profit colleges or sexual assaulters.  All semblance of leadership and collaboration has disappeared from Congress.  And the president neither respects nor understands the functioning of our democracy and constitution, and serves as an abysmal role model for America’s children.

Tuesday, we can weigh in on an election that has little to do with policy or party. On November 6th, America will decide whether we care about the future more than the past, whether we stand for honesty and integrity, whether we believe in checks and balances, whether we’re committed to admirable values for our kids to emulate.  Be sure to vote, and make choices that let you look a child in the eye and say, “I did right by you.”

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